Cartmell Champion block hits the ‘sweet spot’ of learning

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The best hits in baseball come when the ball connects with the “sweet spot” of the bat, the part of the barrel about six and half inches from the end, that maximizes the force of the swing. Doug Oak, principal of Cartmell Elemen-tary School and former baseball player at Cumber-land College, compares the school’s new “Personalized Learning Time,” or PLT, to hitting the “sweet spot of learning.”

“We are trying to facilitate learning that connects exactly where students need it, to maximize learning and not make it too difficult or too easy,” Oak said. He pointed out that a wide range of skill levels exists at Cartmell, but that his staff embraces the challenge of matching just the right learning activities with the right students.

Personalized Learning Time at Cartmell Elementary occurs during the first 90 minutes of the day, referred to as Champion block. During PLT, students who struggle are provided with interventions to strengthen their understanding while students who have demonstrated mastery of certain concepts have an opportunity to deepen their understanding or learn new concepts.

“We use flexible grouping for reinstruction of the common core, based on which skills students have mastered, regardless of grade,” said Jonica Ray, assistant principal at Cartmell Elementary School. “Champion Block is designed to put all students exactly where they will benefit the most, where their specific, individual needs will be addressed.”

Jeanne Rohrer, instructional coach at Cartmell, said that students work on a variety of individualized computer programs and in whole and small groups with instructional assistants and teachers, targeting the skills students need. For example, students who need to improve their spelling skills or to strengthen their identification of different spoken sounds (phonemic awareness) or their connection between sounds and letters (phonics) may participate in one of 16 small groups using the Lindamood Bell program “Seeing Stars.”  Some students need help visualizing images of the words and concepts that they read. Those students participate in one of three Lindamood Bell programs called “Visualizing and Verbalizing,” which help those students to better comprehend what they read.

Students who possess solid skills of “getting  words and meaning off of the page” strengthen their skills by using more advanced comprehension strategies, such as comparing and contrasting, using context clues and inferring meaning not only “to read the lines or between the lines, but also beyond the lines,” Rohrer said. They engage in group or individual reading of longer works of fiction, such as “Where the Red Fern Grows,” “Tuck Everlasting” and “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” to name a few. They use those books to deepen their understanding of the Common Core State Standards, the specific reading, language, and mathematics skills adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, which were compiled to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them” (www.corestandards.org).

Some groups are reading “Junior Great Books,” a series of essays and stories. While these works are shorter than novels, the students read them more closely and at a greater depth.  Rohrer said students who engage in “close reading” analyze the author’s use of vocabulary, figurative language, and other literary devices to pull out the most complete meaning of what they are reading.

In addition to reading, students also spent part of Champion block focusing on mathematics. Many students use “Dream Box,” a computer-based game which resembles a video game but requires students to answer math problems to advance through a series of challenges.

Some students are being introduced to pre-algebraic equations with district math consultant Trudy Louden, who uses video conferencing equipment with a combined group of third grade students at Cartmell and first and second graders at Winn Primary.  She also has a combined group of fourth and fifth graders who work on advanced mathematics concepts.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What would education look like if every child got what they needed rather than every child getting the same thing?’” Oak said.  “I’ve noticed that kids are much more engaged in their learning during Champion block, and I think it’s because the learning is much more specific to their needs.”

Oak said that based on the buzz of activity going on during Champion block, it seems that Personalized Learning Time is a home run.

Jeff Fremin is director of public relations for Carroll County Public Schools.